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When discussing the development of the field of sociology in America, the name of Robert Ezra Park cannot be left out, as he truly is one of the most influencial figures in the history of American sociology. Robert Park was born in rural Pennsylvania on February 14, 1864. His father, Hiram Asa Park, was a soldier in the Union army during the Civil War, and after the war ended he took the family and established it in Red Wing, Minnesota. Park grew up in Red Wing; it would be his home until he turned 18. In 1882, just after graduating from high school, Robert E. Park made the decision to leave his family and Red Wing to go to college (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2012). At first his father opposed his decision to leave for college, but upon seeing that his son was doing well, excelling in his courses, decided to support him. After his first year of college, Park transferred to the reputable University of Michigan, where he graduated five years later with a Bachelors degree in Philosophy.
After graduating, he turned down teaching positions in Red Wing to pursue a career as a reporter in Minneapolis. His interests, however, were not purely in relaying the news to the people, but rather in combining scholarship with journalism. This interest led him to pursue studies in Harvard University, as well as Friedrich Wilhelm University in Germany. After obtaining his Phd at Heidelberg, he returned to the United States of America, and upon his arrival, spent one year as an assistant professor in Harvard University. The remainder of his life was dedicating working on social studies at the Tuskegee Institute, at the University of Chicago, and at Fisk University, where he taught until his death in 1944. Throughout his life Robert E. Park made significant contributions to the study of sociology, particularly in terms of social ecology and race relations. His most significant works include the following: Introduction to the Science of Sociology (1921), The City: Suggestions for the Study of Human Nature in the Urban Environment (1925), Race relations and the Race Problem: A Definition and an Analysis (1939), and Essays in Sociology (1940) (The University of Chicago Centennial Catalogues, 2012).
Main Areas of Study and Key Theoretical Ideas
When discussing Robert E. Park’s works and his contributions to the field of sociology, the first thing that must be noted is that his work revolved on three subjects: collective behavior; human ecology; race relations. Having said this, the first major concept that he developed was that of human ecology. The concept was novel at the time it was introduced because never before had any studies focused on the relationships between man and his surrounding environment. As well, there was differentiation between the natural environment, society’s social environment (referring to the relations and interactions between members of society), and the urban environment construct (referring to the cities and buildings manually constructed by man).
He also developed, alongside Ernest Burgess, a fullfledged theory of urban ecology. In the context of this urban ecology theory, Park also proposed the concept of ecological niches (Thompson, 1979, p. 373). This theory of urban ecology basically equated urban environments (cities) with the natural environments found in nature (forests, jungles, etc.). The sociologist proposed that cities were driven by the same primal forces as were natural environments. Societies too were driven by the Darwinian principles that drove animals’ instincts in their raise to survive and endure. The concept of ecological niches complemented this theory. Park proposed that people were grouped into different echological niches based on a set of shared social characteristics. Within these ecological niches the Darwininian competition took place (in the wider context of the urban environment, of course).
In terms of race relations, during his tenure at the University of Chicago, he developed his very own theory of assimilation, which would go on to be branded the race relation cycle. This theory referred to immigrants, primarly black immigrants. This theory spoke of four distinct stages. When two different social groups come into contact with one another, there is inevitable conflict, or competition between them. Eventually one group will prevail (which in the American experience was whites over blacks) and society will reach its third stage, which is acommodation. In the end, as was the case in the United States during the 1970s, there comes the time for assimilation, which is when both groups overcome their differences and reach a state of peace, respect, and equality (Shils, 1991, p. 120). Upon seeing these four major concepts/theories, it can be seen that all of them attempt to gain a deeper understanding of how society functions as a whole (which was exactly what always interested Robert E. Park).
Significance of the Theorist
After reviewing the life and work of Robert Ezra Park it becomes clear that his contributions to the field of sociology were astronomical. His decision to take a scholar approach to journalism, to commenting on society’s reality, allowed for a deeper understanding of the forces that truly drive societies around the world. His theory of urban ecology, as well as that of the race relation cycle I believe have helped everyone realize that in many ways humans are still animals that are governed by their primal instincts and are simply trying to survive (which implies competition with others). This is evident everywhere. at schools students compete over grades and honors. At work employees compete to overperform and move up to a higher position. Even in relationships this competition is evident, seeing how men compete with each other for the woman they love and want to marry. Men seek power because power elevates them over the rest. It truly appears that Darwinian principles dominate life in urban societies, just as Robert Park theorized during his lifetime. As well, this also relates to interactions between different races and/or social groups. The classic example is the clash between whites and blacks in the United States, but other examples including the religious clashes in the Middle East also evidence that the race relation cycle still holds.